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Defending the Stereotype

Mises Daily: Tuesday, July 05, 2011 by

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Walter Block's delightful book Defending the Undefendable introduced me to the Austrian School of economics. His book was discovered during one of those serendipitous defining moments. I was scouring the Internet for an unrelated text and just stumbled upon the title. I can't remember the text I was originally searching for, but the abstract of Block's book was too titillating to resist.

My familiarity with the Austrian School was limited to, well, nobody at that time, but I was a convert in the waiting. Before reading Defending the Undefendable, I had read Milton and Rose Friedman's Free to Choose and the putative pinnacle of free-market exegesis, Adam Smith's magnum opus The Wealth of Nations. I thought there was nowhere else to go. How wrong I was.

Block cleared away the irrational, inchoate underbrush of my own thoughts, along with my belief in the Chicago School's free-market bona fides, with sweeping scythe-like passages that cleared a path toward Rothbard, Mises, Hazlitt, Bastiat, and more Walter Block.

Defending the Undefendable is fun because it is provocative, and if there is a shortage of anything in this world, it is provocateurs. The planet is overrun with narcissistic conformists who deserve to — nay, must — be exposed as the puny, prevaricating poltroons they are. A good dose of strapping logic, which Walter Block supplies in Defending the Undefendable, is the politically incorrect antidote to their interventionist venom.

More than anything, Defending the Undefendable is stimulating; you can't help but conjure additional examples of the undefendable that need a good defense. The tax cheat and the smuggler sprang immediately to mind for me; I'm sure you have your own examples.

Stereotyping was another, and it has been given the bum's rush in recent years, particularly in the salons of higher education, where emotion and omphaloskepsis increasingly trump logic and erudition. Stereotyping is denounced wrongly as unseemly, as being narrow-minded and bigoted, and, rightly, as prejudice — when the judgment precedes the evidence, you are prejudging. Stereotypes are often negative, but who's at fault: the person engaging in a negative stereotypical act or the person interpreting an act negatively?

The politically correct bien-pensants always fail to recognize that stereotyping is a form of inductive reasoning. If you see something repeatedly, but not necessarily without fail, you form an opinion, which is layered with a degree of truth. A subset of the human race, based on ethnicity, inclination, or geography, will spring to mind after reading each of the following words: financier, migrant worker, male flight attendant, NASCAR driver, sprinter.

I'm sure most of us immediately conjured similar images. Yes, it is unfair to impose a group characteristic onto an individual, but we did so nonetheless. To belabor the obvious, each of us is an individual, not a group. When the stereotype is proven fallacious for an individual, move on.

But if it is not, don't. Stereotypes give reason to pause and think when they are violated. For example, if someone were to profess to being a Jewish migrant worker, the brow should furrow and the lips should purse. Jewish migrant workers might very well exist, but I suspect that few of us have met any, so we would naturally, and rightfully, question the occupational assertion: it violates our stereotype, which was developed from experience. Is it so offensive to reply, "come again?"

The recent scandal of the blog A Gay Girl in Damascus exemplifies how questioning the violation of a stereotype raises healthy skepticism. According to Wikipedia,

Amina Abdallah Arraf al Omari [the "Gay Girl,"] was a fictional character or hoax persona created and maintained by American peace activist and graduate student Tom MacMaster. The identity was presented as a Syrian-American blogger, identifying herself as a lesbian on her weblog … and blogging in support of increased civil and political freedom for Syrians.

A noble cause, but a fraud nonetheless. Ms. Arraf's, or rather Mr. MacMaster's, writings stopped abruptly one Monday a few weeks ago and took a soap-opera twist: In a posting on A Gay Girl in Damascus, a "cousin" wrote that Amina had been hauled away by government security agents. News of her disappearance swelled into an Internet and mass-media sensation. The US State Department started an investigation. Peter Beinart, wishful thinker and former editor of the New Republic, importuned, "The Obama administration must speak about this. This woman is a hero."

Ms. Arraf's authenticity should have been questioned from the get-go, and maybe it was, but doing so in front of the wrong crowd would have offended too many delicate sensitivities. What should have aroused skepticism? Ms. Arraf's photograph violated the lesbian stereotype, appearing to appeal more to the fantasy of a heterosexual male (perhaps Mr. MacMaster) than another woman. Of course, it is statistically possible that a woman who preferred the company of other women would also be appealing to most heterosexual men, even in Damascus. It would just be less statistically probable.

A 40-year-old man pretending to be a gay girl in Damascus is harmless neoteny. There's a problem, though, when political correctness and wishful thinking supersede experience. Consider the stereotypical terrorist: a Middle Eastern, religiously fanatical, dour male with brown skin, black hair, and facial hair. The stereotype is very real and very logical.

I'll state the obvious again: a miniscule subset of Middle Eastern males are terrorists, and a stereotype fails to encompass the whole of a person. That said, the subset of female septuagenarians of western European descent who are terrorists is even more miniscule, if it exists at all, which is the reason Grandma Walton isn't stereotyped as a terrorist.

That is, she isn't stereotyped as a terrorist if you are a private citizen. The TSA, in its pathological desire to avoid all appearance of stereotyping, will categorize the old gal as a possible terrorist, along with her six-year-old grandchild, thus making travel more miserable for all, including Middle Eastern males.

And what about Austrian School economics? Its adherents are stereotyped as uncompromising free-market anachronisms by its detractors. I'm indifferent to the stereotype, because there is truth in it. Yes, we are for free markets (truth). Are we an anachronism? To the majority who label us so, yes.

Fortunately, that majority is shriveling. Stereotypes change as perceptions change, and the stereotype of Austrians continues to change for the better as our influence on the mainstream media grows (check here, here, and here). I suspect in time our stereotype will evolve from free-market anachronism to free-market hipster.

Why the optimism? The truth — whether it be Mises's prediction of Soviet collapse or the inevitable undressing of Mr. MacMaster — always prevails. The truth is that free markets are always superior to markets manipulated by outside actors. The Austrian School doesn't adhere to the principles of liberty, limited (or no) government, and property rights for their own sake. These are only means to an end, and the end is a healthier, wealthier, more civilized, most equitable society. We know that government intervention and violations of individual sovereignty invariably produce more costs than benefits.

Our job, the truth, is to explain how and why free markets operate and to reveal all the unpleasant consequences when free markets are violated. Economists more interested in personal glory and recondite faux algorithms than truth are the real undefendables wanting for a defense, and not even Walter Block can provide that.